Systemic Violence, Part 2

Systemic Violence, Part 2

Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse. When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose. You’re invisible now, you’ve got no secrets to conceal. Bob Dylan[1]

Last week I noted that our capitalistic economy is a structurally violent system. It is a significant contributor to the violence in our society and is probably a natural outgrowth of the motivations behind the initial European settlers’ migration here in the 17th century. They sought escape from what they considered oppressive rule in their former homelands. They sought lives of freedom, which to them meant living and working independently with minimal governmental interference, keeping and controlling more of what they possessed and produced. They dreamed of a type of independence where succeeding or failing in life was based on what they believed to be their own efforts. It formed the American dream, and continues as such for millions today. As the population expanded enough to require its own government, social structures were established to codify the ability to attain this American dream. Unfortunately, the structures established benefited the initial, mostly white settlers at the expense of the indigenous people living in long-running communal systems prior to their arrival. The new systems, consistent with most systems, were prejudiced to favor those who created them. Still today, although laws prohibit overt discrimination and oppression, minority populations, persons of color, and others lacking means or influence struggle to meet their most basic needs because of a system designed with them on the outside. It is not necessarily that our predecessors were evil or desirous of oppressing others, but they did place accommodating their desired lifestyles above the needs of the lives already in place here. The systems they designed were not inclusive enough to fairly provide for the various groups populating the land. The new systems did not so much exclude outsiders as it forced them to adapt to the ways of the new settlers or be oppressed by them. In other words, they had to act and live like white Christians in order to benefit from the system. And when the desires of the new settlers were in conflict with the lifestyles of the non-adapting existing peoples, violence often ensued.

Capitalistic systems are built on the assumption that resources are scarce, so everyone must claim what they are able to claim when they are able to claim it. That orientation of scarcity encourages hoarding and violent action, sometimes in physical ways, to assure the obtaining of one’s fair share. And those best able to accumulate resources – the ones the system favors – reap the greatest amounts in material rewards. The biggest problem with abiding by an attitude of scarcity is the greed that accompanies it. The system makes it easier for those who already have an abundance to gain even greater abundance regardless of the cost to those with little. Because there is no lasting satisfaction to the rewards a capitalistic system bestows, however, even those with much more than they could possibly need consistently feel they need more. There is no security, economic or otherwise, in systems that skew resources to select groups at the expense of others.

The result has been the unprecedented and ever-widening gap between the haves and the have-nots in our society. This manifests in vastly differing amounts of access to adequate housing, healthcare, and education, as well as in food insecurity, ridiculous wage differentials, and few opportunities to improve one’s socio-economic existence. Those at the lower end of this social continuum experience a powerlessness and lack of control that those at the higher end do not recognize or experience. As those in the lower economic classes find themselves sinking ever lower due to inflation and the hoarding of resources by the upper classes, their sense of powerlessness and despair grows. In the words of modern-day prophet, Bob Dylan, “When you ain’t got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”[2] Desperate people resort to desperate measures.

Currently in the United States, there is coalescing a significant population of people formerly in the middle class finding themselves increasingly pushed down and even out of the social systems that once sustained them. Like the indigenous peoples, persons of color, LGBTQ+ folks, and others forced to the fringes of society, the systems in place for two-and-a-half centuries are failing them. The American dream, forever portrayed as available to anyone willing to work hard enough to attain it, might as well have its entrance on Mars because there is no reasonable way for them to get there because of the entrenched, violent, and unjust systems working against them. More on this group next week.

This is the 24th in a series of Life Notes titled Guns, Mental Illness, and Jesus. The opinions expressed here are mine and not necessarily those of other individuals or organizations. To engage with me or to explore contemplative spiritual direction, contact me at

Check out Greg’s interview on Contemplative Spirituality

with MysticMag here:

[1] Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone, Song lyrics, Highway 61 Revisited (1965),.

[2] Bob Dylan, Like a Rolling Stone, Song lyrics, Highway 61 Revisited (1965),.

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